Future-Proofing Your Charity: The Art of Succession (Part B)

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By David Kay, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, ProVenture Advisors

I recently saw this quote on LinkedIn, and it caught my attention.

The person who leads the renowned Spencer Stuart CEO practice has said this:

No doubt, Jim Citrin has wise insight into the development of high-performing CEOs and realizes everyone in the organization needs to be served by leaders, and nurtured by the organization, so they can grow and assume more and more responsibility.

Differentiated Leaders

Research* shows that the world’s best CEOs differentiate themselves by mobilizing through leaders:

  • Team Compositioncreating an ecosystem with a complementary set of skills (1+1=3) and attitudes to lead change together
  • Teamworkmaking the team the star by continually improving our effectiveness in combining data, dialogue & speed 

That same research shows that these CEOs also align the organization well:

  • Culturefinding the one thing that matters most and personally owning it, ensuring a well-coordinated approach for the organization
  • Talent – ensure the highest value-creating roles have the best-fitting talent 

Leading with Succession Mindsets

Over my career, I’ve witnessed certain CEOs shine while leading in these ways and the research shows that this type of leadership is common when organizations out-perform, over the long run. Interestingly, these leaders don’t talk too much about leadership. Instead, they live by these differentiated mindsets, delivering excellence.  Inevitably, results and impact follow.  There is a large dose of humility under-girding the mobilizing through the leader’s practices cited above.

Living these mindsets is the very heart of outstanding succession planning. 

I’ve experienced the benefits of moving through an organization where these mindsets reign. One feels understood, challenged, trusted, nurtured, and cared for in such environments.  I’m grateful to the leaders who have made this happen.  And Jim’s quote above is true – many leaders are carried along in a strong and well-managed organization!

Ownership of Succession Work

Ultimately, a key piece of being an excellent CEO/ED is custody of succession, for all in the organization.  It is not just delegated to HR, but certainly wise leaders of talent can play a key supporting role.  This is all undergirded with processes and the provision of objective and wise input from the best places about the potential and performance of people.  With the CEO/ED as the driver of the best talent available to the right places in the organization, succession excellence happens.  

The placement of people into new and challenging roles, while nurturing optimal teamwork, results in a pipeline of leadership talent that can flourish and ultimately sustain the organization for the future.  Without it, organizations flounder with high turnover rates and a lack of momentum in creating impact and funding.

From small to large organizations, succession is not primarily about ‘the top job’ but about everyone in the organization.  It is a core CEO/ED responsibility to play the long game, using creativity and risk-taking to provide opportunities for others to shine, creating opportunities for others to assume responsibility.

Halt the Churn

In the not-for-profit sector, one easily observes tremendous levels of churn of people moving from one organization to another, often within the same functional responsibility, and even to places with a similar cause.  This costly scenario could be reversed with the above mindsets fully engaged and succession managed well.  Is this possible? 

Another potential cause of this costly churn is that often people can get pigeon-holed in certain functions, reducing their ability to grow.  How often do you see these rather arbitrary (and for me, annoying!) “must have X years of experience doing Y” on job opportunities? Must this restriction necessarily be the case?  Or does it represent a rather arbitrary way of weeding out opportunity, with overly conservative ways of recruiting/placing people?  Certainly, with demonstrated success, people can diversify their capabilities and increase their leadership upside; especially in an organization that nurtures and supports talent. 

Opportunities for Greater Exposure

My professional experience in the corporate world was nurturing and made room for growth.  Often, I assumed a new role that wasn’t a technical promotion but grew my exposure to new capabilities.  Other times I was given large promotions, initially making me wonder if I could deliver. But the organization saw it as the next best move and expected that with support, things would work out well!  This was my lived experience to be ‘carried’.  Both types of opportunity were key to development.

A holistic and thoughtful approach to succession involves both exposure to new areas and the opportunity to be stretched.  Perhaps there is room in our not-for-profit sector to offer similar paths that build talent pipelines and create more resilient organizations.  

Role of Boards and CEOs

On highly functional boards I have served on there is a lot of exposure of internal talent to the board.  It is always great to see emerging talent given the responsibility to address the more complex issues with the board, allowing more exposure to those who are in the senior leadership pipeline.  This provides invaluable perspectives as leadership discerns the best approaches to succession.  In addition, those boards are in the habit of having regular and objective discussions about succession issues.  

Great CEOs/EDs simply make senior talent succession planning a priority as they steward the future of the organization.  In the case of CEO transitions, lots of generative and thoughtful discussions happen well before specific actions are taken to ‘fill’ the role.  Both boards and CEO/EDs need to exercise this long-term view.

Succession Excellence

A great ‘acid test’ of succession excellence is whether the board and the CEO/ED have multiple exciting options for the highest-value-creating roles in the organization.  And for those of you who are skeptical, I have seen this happen, even with smaller organizations. This is often the result of people being ‘carried’ through the organization for extended periods, constantly developing a diversified set of leadership capabilities, and feeling valued all along the way. 

In the most functional organizations I’ve been close to when the key jobs are being filled, multiple internal options exist, with consideration for outside sourcing especially if for some reason new perspectives are needed.  

When there is high turnover with people moving to external opportunities, it may be a clear signal that people development and/or succession issues exist that need to be resolved. Perhaps, people are not being ‘carried’, finding the need to move on.  It is even more of a warning sign if this happens for the key value-creating roles.

Leadership Transitions

Lastly, here are a few thoughts about the actual transition process… I’ve seen both brilliant and not-so-strong transitions.  Seemingly, too often there is a very choppy process with “let’s start over” or “let’s fix the mess” type narratives.  Having said all this, it is inevitable that some of this type of noise happens.  

Sometimes the “public view” is more positive, but the reality is tougher. Without the mindsets and practices already discussed, these not-so-strong outcomes are far more probable.  So, bravo to the excellent CEOs/EDs and their boards that always make succession a vital part of how things are done.  There are so many benefits – lower churn in the sector, the opportunity for growth, and the continuity of great organizations even through transitions, just to mention a few.

In Conclusion

Succession is a leadership art form that, when done well, requires important leadership mindsets.  Finding ways to intentionally develop people through creating ecosystems where the team is the star and placing the best-fit talent for key roles.  These practices allow for optimized succession in the organization.  With recognition of the potential in people, an eye towards intentional development, and making room for flourishing, CEOs/EDs can develop strong talent pipelines for all the key value-creating roles in their organizations. Are you ‘carrying’ people through your organization, making succession an ever-alive discipline?

With Appreciation

We at ProVenture Advisors are thankful to Cause Leadership for the opportunity to share these thoughts.  We love collaborating with those who lead great causes.  We would be pleased to “discover the art of the possible” through improved succession thinking and practice at your organization.

(Part A of this article was published in June 2024.)

David Kay, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, ProVenture Advisors

*Dewar, Keller, Malhotra “CEO Excellence”: Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2022

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